Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Announces Credit on Water and Sewer Bills for Over 664,000 Homeowners

April 25, 2016

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Okay. Good afternoon, everyone. Well, today we’re righting a wrong. Today, we’re doing something for homeowners that should have been done a long time ago, and it’s an issue I’ve worked on for years, going back to my time as Public Advocate. I’m very proud that we’re going to be able to give something back to so many hardworking homeowners all over this city who deserve a break.

And with me are two of the homeowners. You’ll hear from them in a moment. I want to thank Maia and Gary Elfont for joining us – who live on this block – proud owners of a home on this block for almost a decade. And, you know, they are examples of people all over this city who love their home, love their block, love their neighborhood, do so much to make this a great city – and deserve a break.

And I have to tell you, when I first learned about this issue when I was Public Advocate, I thought for years and years when we paid the water bill for our home in Brooklyn, I just assumed it was all for water. I had no idea that, in fact, going all the way back to 1985, at some point the City decided to start charging an additional fee on top of the cost of water. And when I found out a few years ago, it shocked me, and I felt there was a fundamental injustice in that because people have a lot of burdens, a lot of challenges, a lot of things they have to pay for. But if they’re paying a water bill, it should be for water and nothing else. And we said from the beginning, we wanted to get to the day where we could change that. And with this budget that we’re going to announce tomorrow, we are going to finally end those extra payments as part of the water bill. We’re going to end what’s called the Rental Payments. And from this day forward, your water bill will pay for one thing only – water. And that’s the way it should be.

Now, I have to tell you – again, I said 1985 is when this started, when this additional rental payment was included and passed onto homeowners without them even knowing it. And we believe that everyone should have a sense of what their money is going for, and why it matters. Water is a precious, precious resource, obviously. This city is blessed with an extraordinary water system, and it costs a lot to keep it up. But what we get is something amazing – some of the best water anywhere in the whole country in abundant supply. And we’re going to always invest to keep that going. So, that’s a blessing. And I can say as a homeowner – I think any other homeowner would say – it’s worth spending money to get some of the best water in the country, and know it’s always going to be there for you and your family. But it makes no sense to spend your hard earned money on something other than water in your water bill.

Now, this action we are announcing today will save homeowners across all five boroughs a total of $82 million in fiscal year ’16 – the fiscal year we’re in right now – $82 million. And then it goes up next year to a savings for all homeowners of $244 million, and the year after that, $268 million, that would have come out of the pockets of homeowners but instead it’s going to go right back to them.

This is part of the executive budget, and we will be announcing further details tomorrow on this, and many other important items. But we knew that this is part of an overall effort to address the needs of everyday working people all over the city – to make sure that what the city does is fair. And we knew it was important because we’ve from heard so many homeowners how tough it is to make ends meet, and all the challenges they’re facing.

As many of you know I was in Staten Island last week for a town hall meeting – and obviously heard the many challenges people face, and the trouble they have making their household budget stretch. One of them is with us – want to thank Michael, who’s the President of the Westerleigh – Michael Morel, the president of the Westerleigh Improvement Association – who was there at the town hall meeting. And Michael, thank you, because so many neighborhood associations, civic associations, block associations, have spoken up on the needs of the homeowners – and particularly on how outrageous it was that homeowners were paying an extra charge in their water bill.

So, you talked about that challenge, and you’re one of the voices that I’ve heard over many years saying, “Let’s get this right.” So, now we finally will.

And, this will mean a one-time credit of $183 – beautifully illustrated right here behind us, thanks to our wonderful graphics people – a one-time credit of $183 on the water and sewer bill. And this will reach 664,000 homeowners in all five boroughs. So, again a one-time credit of $183 reaching 664,000 homeowners – and they make up over 80 percent of our water bill payers across the city. So, the vast majority of those who pay water bills are homeowners. And that majority will be getting this rebate.

We will put this proposal forward to the Water Board, and we know they’re always going to carefully consider each proposal but we’re hopeful that they will embrace it. And what it would mean is a 17 percent savings for a typical single-family household – and Emily will go into more detail about this. 17 percent savings for a typical household, and then a 40 percent savings for 150,000 homeowners – in particular, seniors – and that’s very, very important to try and get some extra help to our seniors.

So, our goal is to create a city that everyone can live in, a city truly for everyone, and this is one of the ways that we help to achieve that agenda.

Now, I mentioned at this same time how crucial it is to keep up our water system. And it really is a marvel. It doesn’t get a lot of attention but it’s one of the things that makes New York City truly great. We’ve got over 6,000 people who work at the Department of Environmental Protection. There’s scientists, and there’s engineers, and so many talented people who do the work every day to keep our water safe and pure, and to keep it flowing. And they deliver, reliably, over a billion gallons every day – correct? Over a billion gallons every day to eight-and-a-half million New Yorkers – that’s a stunning achievement.

So, there’s a reason why the water keeps flowing. There’s a reason why the state and federal government regard this as some of the best water anywhere – and it has to go through so many thousands of miles of tunnels and aqueducts and water mains – and it works because of the great people who work at DEP.

And it costs a lot of money – and that money is worth the price. It’s worth it spending for a great water system but only for a great water system.

We’re going to make sure that people know from this point on, when they look at their bill, they know exactly what it goes for, and they can be proud of the fact that they are contributing to the greatest water system around – and they’re not paying a single penny beyond that.

I want to have you hear in a moment from Gary and Maia – and then I want you to hear a more detailed explanation from Commissioner Lloyd.

But let me just say a few words in Spanish first.

[Mayor de Blasio speaks in Spanish]

With that, I want to turn to Maia and Gary. Again, thank you for having us on your block. And, I think it’d be great if you just tell people what it means to you to get this money back – and what it means to you to be a homeowner here in Bay Ridge.

[…]

Mayor: Thank you, Maia. Now – great honor of presenting our DEP Commissioner. She does an extraordinary job. One of the biggest and most complex agencies in all of City government, and she keeps things moving beautifully for the people of the City of New York – DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd. 

Commissioner Emily Lloyd, Department of Environmental Protection: Thank you, Mayor. And thank you Maia and Gary for hosting us today on this beautiful block. As DEP Commissioner, I can tell you that today is truly a historic day. For more than 30 years, DEP commissioners have sat down every spring to figure out what our rate proposal will be for the next year, trying to meet the needs of the system, also trying to keep the rates reasonable. And, by the way, our water rates are slightly lower than the national average, and it’s about the only thing in New York City that is lower than the national average. And every spring, we would have to figure into our math how much we would need to pay the City for the rental payment. And the way it was structured, the more we invested in the system – that was a good thing – the more we had to pay in a rental payment, which seemed unfair to us and seemed unfair, as well, to the Mayor even before he was mayor. He had said that he was going to end the rental payment and ensure that the fees we collect from you through water and sewer bills would only be used to fund the system, and now he has done just that.

Going forward, this will provide DEP with significant additional dollars to fund the City’s indispensable water and waste-water systems, and to help us keep rates affordable. The funds will help pay for critical capital projects, such as ongoing repairs to the Delaware Aqueduct under the Hudson River, completing work on City Water Tunnel Number Three in Brooklyn and Queens, upgrades to our waste-water treatment plants, and continued expansion of our green infrastructure program. It will also help us extend a hand to some of our more vulnerable customers. We have two programs that are for multi-family buildings. One is called the Multi-Family Conservation Rate, and that gives multi-family buildings who install low-flow fixtures a break on their water rates. This year, we’re introducing a new program – proposing it to the Water Board – for multi-family buildings as well – one that would give a rebate of $225 for every apartment in a building that committed to stay affordable in the future.

In addition, we have two programs to help other vulnerable populations. First of all, for the third year in a row, we are freezing our minimum payment for people who use less water than average – and most of these are seniors. We have frozen that rate. This will be the fourth year that it will remain the same. And then the last program, which we’re very proud of, which was also introduced at the Mayor’s request, was one to give a $116 annual rebate to people who either qualify for the heat program because of income limitations, or who qualify for a credit on their taxes because they’re elderly or disabled. And, this year, we are expanding that program so it will go out to not just 52,000 customers, which was the case last year, but we’re going to be able to add an additional 68,000 dollar – customers to that program –

Mayor: 68,000 customers.

Commissioner Lloyd: Customers – customers –

Mayor: [Inaudible]

Commissioner Lloyd: I don’t have a dollar. 

[Laughter]

68,000 customers – trick question. Water is indispensable, as we always say. When they go to Mars, what do they look for? To see if there was water there because without water there couldn’t have been life there. It’s indispensable to all of us, and what the Mayor has done today is going to help ensure two things – first, that we have the funding we need to operate and maintain this great water and waste-water system, and to serve this great City; and, second, by ensuring that water and sewers fees are dedicated just to the water and sewer system itself, it will help us keep water and sewer bills affordable for New Yorkers.

Thank you, Mr. Mayor. 

[…] 

Mayor: So, we’re going to take questions on this topic, then I’d like my colleagues here – everyone – Gary, Maia, Michael, come on up and let’s take a picture next to this beautiful large check. 

[Laughter]

A large check is a glorious thing, don't you think? So, we’re going to take questions on this first. We’ll take a picture by the check and then we’ll take questions on other topics. 

On this, yes?

Question: Mayor, just until a few weeks ago, this [inaudible] was included in the water increase, so what lead to the change of heart?

Mayor: That’s what the budget process is for. We spend a lot of time looking at the budget and, you know, you’ll hear about it in great detail tomorrow, but we had to make a lot of tough decisions. There are some areas where we had to find efficiencies, but we also believe this was a high priority and we could reach it, and that just enough time had gone by. It was time to resolve it – that’s what it came down to.

Yes?

Question: [inaudible] rent payments was going to the City’s general operating fund? 

Mayor: I want Emily to give you the history from ’85 so you get – but, go ahead, what’s the other question?

Question: [inaudible] pretty big numbers [inaudible]. So, how do we make up for that shortfall, going forward? 

Mayor: Well, you tell them the history part and then I’ll talk about it.

Commissioner Lloyd: The history is that when the City turned over to the Department of Environmental Protection – the water and waste-water system for the City – and set up a financing mechanism, which is the Water Finance Authority and the Water Board, they said we’ve put all this money into all of this infrastructure, so you should pay us some rent for that. And that made sense, and a lot of cities have done that, but it was written with a quirky aspect to it, which was rather than paying down the debt, every time we invested more in the system and borrowed money to pay for it, we had to pay a percentage of that larger bit of debt. And so, the rental payment kept going up, and up, and up and we could never pay it down. So, the idea has been to – first, to bring it down little by little, and then the Mayor, who has been – for as long as I’ve known him – been saying we should get rid of the rental payment – said, no, we’re just going to do it this year.

Mayor: So, the bottom line is, it’s a – you know, again, budget is a series of choices. This is something I thought just wasn’t fair. Even though we have to be disciplined in our budget, we could reach it this year, and, my fear was, if we didn’t do it now, you know, then we’d get into trouble later on and people would then say, well, let’s put it off – put it off – put it off. There is a famous African proverb that says the time to fix the roof is while the sun is shining. So, you know, we happened to have at least some resources to work with, and this was the time to fix this problem. 

Yes?

Question: So, in this year, getting rid of the rent payment is going to pay for this credit. In future years, how is that going to – what is going to be used for? Is it going to affect the rate?

Commissioner Lloyd: So, it will always affect the rate that we have this back in our budget. The Mayor started returning it to us at an accelerated rate a couple of years ago, and we have been anticipating that it would get lower every year. So, we have really figured, going forward, that we would have some additional money to put into investments and also to keep the rate down. But because he accelerated the rate at which he was giving it back, we have this one-time, additional piece of money, and that was when we decided that the thing to do was – because we had so many programs for multi-unit apartments and for people – for seniors and for people of lower incomes – that it would very nice to do some things for the homeowners who are really the backbone of our customer base for the water system. 

Mayor: I’m going to do a follow-up question, which I think will be helpful [inaudible] but every year will be different in terms of the needs of the water system and what – pay different amounts depending on what you need.

Commissioner Lloyd: Yes.

Mayor: [inaudible] explain that.

Commissioner Lloyd: There are several things that drive what we do. First of all, both our water and our waste-water infrastructure are quite old, so we are always trying to replace that at a steady rate, and whenever we feel we have a little more flexibility in our resources, we try to accelerate the rate. In fact, the first year that the Mayor was in office he asked us to accelerate the rate of replacing very old water mains at about a $100 million a year. The other thing that has tremendous effect on us is mandates. The water and waste-water systems are very highly regulated, and we are every year being asked by EPA, by State agencies that regulate us, to do more things, so we have to make investments. Sometimes they’re operating – sometime they’re big capital investments like the Croton filtration plant or the Newtown Creek waste-water treatment plant. Those – although we generally know they’re coming a few years ahead of time – have to be put in the rate as well. That goes up and down.

Every year we’re dealing with those things, and now the other really big unknown for us is climate change. We have started to really pick up the pace of our investment in storm-water management because climate change seems to be accelerating. You may have seen they had fifteen inches of rain in Houston last week – four inches in one hour. We are really looking at how we can expand our storm-water management system. Between repairing what’s old in a very old system, dealing with climate change, and dealing with requirements of our regulators, every year we’re trying to figure out what’s the highest priority for investment.

Mayor: On this topic. Other questions on this topic – yes?

Question: You talked about the bill being confusing – what exactly is the line item on the bill that would go away for customers?

Mayor: What’s the line item? Did it have a line item? Describe whether it was even identified.

Commissioner Lloyd: For the rebate to property owners?

Question: Yes, and the decision to end rental payments. Is there –

Commissioner Lloyd: It is a discretionary decision by the Mayor. That is what is written into the law. Any Mayor could’ve chosen to do this. He simply has to decide that he’s not going to request it of the water system – of the water board.

Question: So people looking at their bill, what will they see that’s different?

Commissioner Lloyd: This year they will see a credit – $183 credit in their bill if they’re a homeowner. After that, they will not see it broken out separately. It will be mixed in with the various things we’re spending money on and the overall rate.

Mayor: Let me follow on your question to see if I can help as a homeowner. I don’t remember it ever being identified as a separate –

Commissioner Lloyd: It wasn’t ever identified, yes.

Mayor: What we’d call hidden.

Commissioner Lloyd: It was never sitting there on top like a surcharge that you could see.

Mayor: Imagine such a thing.

On this topic, going once, going twice. To the big check, everyone.

[…]

Mayor: Okay. Thank you very much.

Alright, other topics? Yes.

Question: You also announced today, $20 million for the City Board of Elections if they agree to certain reforms.

Mayor: Yes.

Question: Can you talk about why those reforms are necessary. And also, this requires approval in Albany, right? So, what makes you hopeful that this can get through in Albany? I think previous mayors have tried [inaudible] –

Mayor: Well, there’s a couple of different pieces. There’s the legislative piece in Albany, and then there’s what we’re talking about. We’ve said this is, in effect, a challenge grant. We’ve said that there’s a lot we’d like to help the Board of Elections do but we must see commitment to reform and modernization or we’re not going to spend the taxpayers’ dollars. And let me be clear – there’s some very basic expenses of running an election. We’re obviously going to include those in the budget. We’ve got three more elections this year – strangely enough. But there’s a lot more that I know the Board of Elections wants to do – things that I think would be good things in terms of improving the work – but we need to see some guarantees before we spend the taxpayers’ dollars.

At the same time, I think there needs to be legislative change. And that’s a separate but related piece of the equation. I think we need to professionalize the Board of Elections. Let’s face it – for decades and decades it’s been a strange combination of government sanctioned but party run. And it’s time for a more professional approach. And the simple, straight-forward way to do that is to empower the Executive Director, and create a more professional dynamic with, you know, a longer set term, and other features that give the executive director the ability to run things in a modern, professional manner.

So, that’s what we’ll be working for. I can’t predict the reception in Albany. But I can say that people have gotten more and more frustrated – you talk to every day people who experienced the lines when they go to vote, who experience the machine breakdowns, the changes of location, the misinformation – and it’s very, very frustrating, and people deserve better.

The final thing I’d say is we have to then go even beyond that and do a host of things that the state has long since needed – same-day registration, early voting, vote-by-mail. New York State is one of the most backwards when it comes to electoral reform. So, there’s a lot we have to get done. But we’re going to use our resources to challenge the Board.

Mayor: Media?

Question: No.

Mayor: Oh, I’m sorry. Media questions. My apology. We’re doing media questions. Yes, sir.

Question: [Inaudible] is it accurate that Deputy Mayor Glen’s office knew about problems with the Rivington deal, and didn’t inform you for at least a month? And if so, will there be repercussions for that?

Mayor: I don’t have any reason to believe that is accurate. But again, a full investigation is going on. And when we see the whole total, then we’ll speak to it.

Question: [Inaudible] the Post story was –

Mayor: Again, no – I don’t tend to think Post stories are accurate to begin with. And I don’t think that one was.

Question: Mr. Mayor, do you get written sign off from the Conflicts of Interest Board for your involvement with the three non-profit groups –

Mayor: I’m sorry?

Question: Did you get written sign-off or guidance from the Conflicts of Interest Board on the three nonprofit groups that have –

Mayor: We can get back to you with details. Everything that I have done has been thoroughly vetted by a variety of lawyers along the way. And where we thought it was necessary to go to Conflicts of Interest, we did. And we’ve done it a number of times. But I don’t want to speak to each occasion because I want to make sure we give you exact facts.

Yes.

Question: Mayor, on the fundraising inquiry, have you now, yourself, read this letter that has been out, and the memo attached to it? Have you personally read it? And can you explain what’s wrong about it? What isn’t true about it?

Mayor: I’ve read Mr. Laufer’s letter, if that’s what you mean. I haven’t read the other memo. I’ve seen, obviously, quotes from it, but I think what Mr. Laufer laid out is straightforward – that any government watchdog is supposed to be very, very careful in the work they do to follow the rules, to follow the laws, and to scrupulously be independent and nonpartisan, and I think he raised real concerns about whether that was the case here or not.

Question: What do you say to the assertion from the State elections – I believe it’s the State Board of Elections’ attorney who asserts that you were trying to direct folks to circumvent campaign finance – ? 

Mayor: It’s outrageous, and, again, I don’t know what’s motivating it. I think Mr. Laufer’s letter raised a number of good questions about what might be motivating it, but the facts that he lays out about the consistency in our State law, and the fact that, you know, my predecessor and so many other people lived by those exact same standards – I think it speaks for itself. 

Yeah?

Question: Mr. Mayor, can you unequivocally say that neither you or any member of your team has violated campaign finance laws?

Mayor: I can unequivocally say that. 

Question: Mr. Mayor, do you think there is an attempt to criminalize fundraising and campaign donations? 

Mayor: Well, let’s separate the pieces here a little. In this instance, again, I think there’s an obvious question mark around that memo that was leaked to the press, and – real questions about motivation, and obviously huge questions about accuracy in terms of the law. So, whatever that – whatever’s motivating that particular act is one thing. I think on the bigger question of how we finance elections – and I spoke about this a couple of times in the last few weeks – what we need, I think, is an entirely different system. I think we should abandon the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court. I think we should go to full public financing of elections. But, until we do that, there’s a set of rules and a set of laws that everyone is governed by, and everyone needs to respect and play by – but they’re not good rules or laws. You know, Citizens United is one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court. And I think a lot of – in fact, it’s quite clear from public polling, the vast majority of Americans agree with that. Unfortunately, it’s the law of the land right now. So, that’s what we deal with. 

Marcia?

Question: [inaudible] Mayor, do you think that there was a political motivation in leaking this memo to the press?

Mayor: I am quite certain that all of you will get to the truth about that. I am quite certain that you will be able to uncover whatever motivations may have existed. But we can say this – a government officer is supposed to honor their responsibilities. And, first of all, that should never have been put into the public domain. And, second of all, when you look at how inconsistent it is with State law, it begs the question – what was the underlying motivation? But I have confidence that all of you will get to the bottom of it. 

Question: The letter that your lawyer, Mr. Laufer, wrote said that there was an apparent political motivation. I wonder if you subscribe to that.

Mayor: I’m going to say it very simply – I think it’s important that the facts be found in this case. A lot of very good people are having their names dragged through the mud over these last few weeks – a lot of people that I respect greatly and have worked with for years. That’s not right. That’s not fair. We’ve made very clear – we welcome a full airing of the facts. I want all the facts out there because I’m quite convinced the facts will show that everything was done legally and appropriately. But when you see something done in this kind of fashion – when you see an inappropriate leak, when you see the law being misconstrued in such an obvious fashion, of course it begs the question of motivation, but I’ll leave it to all of you to undercover – to uncover, I should say, those motivations. 

Thanks, everyone. 

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